Nicole Charles searched for years for her “Cheers bar,” “a dive with great food that people can afford, where everyone has a good time.” This past spring, she found it in Pine Bluff. On May 17, she bought Morgan’s Bar and Grill.
When Charles took over, Morgan’s had four employees — one full time, and three “extremely part-time” people who worked maybe every other weekend or once a week. But despite the promise of decent wages ($10 an hour plus tips), loyal regulars and good traffic at the corner of Mineral Point Road and County Road P, Charles couldn’t find anyone to hire.
“I’m here during the day, and every day I see people pull up and see if we’re open for lunch, and we’re not,” said Charles, who also owns a real estate company. “I know we’re losing business.
“There is a ton of potential, if I could find people to staff it.”
After 18 months of closures and pivots, food service establishments are reeling from pandemic burnout. The effects are visible everywhere.
Coffee shops are closing early or skipping days completely. Attractive patio seating remains closed. On weekends, diners have found brunch service dark, phone lines tied up and late night hours nonexistent even at hot spots near the Capitol, as wait times grow in dining rooms across town.
“Any time I get together with my restaurant friends, it inevitably becomes the core conversation — staffing issues, and how much everyone is working, and how stretched thin everyone is,” said Charlotte Cozine, who has worked in the front of house for many years at Graze, Alchemy and Casetta Kitchen and Counter.
When Cozine left her last restaurant job in fall 2020, she found work doing contact tracing for the county. She’s since started her own business, Nasturtium, through which she does gardening and house cleaning. Cozine has been talking with a friend about buying a snowblower for winter jobs.
“The restaurant folks I know ... had to re-evaluate what they were doing,” Cozine said. “They lost their jobs because of layoffs, found something else, and aren’t returning to the industry.”
When the National Restaurant Association surveyed its members over the summer, three out of every four restaurant operators cited recruitment and retention of staff as the toughest challenge. A report published Friday from the Wisconsin Policy Forum indicates job recovery in bars and restaurants has been even weaker in Wisconsin than nationally, down 20,000 people (8.8%) compared to 6.1% nationally in August 2021. (Arts, entertainment and recreation remains hardest hit by the pandemic, down 20.5% in the state since August 2019.)
“It’s almost like the workforce up and disappeared overnight,” said Mark Richardson, founder and CEO of Unfinished Business, a consulting firm in Madison that helps companies find and keep employees. “Have they left the industry to take higher paying jobs? Are they holding back because of COVID, and fears about health and safety, or having to deal with masks and vaccine mandates and having to enforce that?
“I don’t think it’s just a money thing,” Richardson said. “Pay and value and benefits are absolutely a part of it, but I get the feeling this is more than just pay.”
Lately, Cozine has been helping out friends at The Kettle Black, a new restaurant on Monroe Street, a few days a week. But she needs to be more available to her 6-year-old son, and Nasturtium allows that. So she’s on her way out too.
“There are industry veterans who probably would have blindly kept going, sacrificing ourselves to the restaurants, if COVID hadn’t happened,” Cozine said. “All of a sudden we were forced to pause and re-evaluate.
“Like, wait a minute. I can do better.”
The great shortage
At Morgan’s Bar and Grill, Charles is dealing with what Eater, a national food-focused website, called “The Great Shortage.” Not only has labor been tight, but for a month, Charles couldn’t get straws or Patron tequila. To her surprise and amusement, there was even a shortage of Miller Lite bottles.
With food prices going up, Charles had to adjust her menu. “Nothing on my menu is more than $8 or $9,” she said. “I’m not about to charge $18 for half a dozen wings.”
Then, in June, an infection sent Charles, a right leg amputee, to the hospital for a series of surgeries. She nearly died. Four months later, Charles still can’t walk behind her own bar to make a drink.
“Thankfully, the staff I did have stepped up,” Charles said. “It showed who my loyal, dedicated, rock star employees are.”
That lack of a safety net — that if someone gets sick or otherwise needs a break, there’s no one to take their place — has been brewing across the industry for years. In 2014, an inability to hire enough cooks for service led to new training programs and applied upward pressure on wages. Still, five years later, Madison restaurants found themselves in a cycle of constantly hiring and training workers.
“Are we struggling with staffing because there aren’t enough people?” Sam McDaniel, then a restaurant consultant, asked at the time. “Or is it that jobs are not good, so people don’t want the jobs?”
The pandemic widened gaps that already existed, exposing and amplifying cracks in the industry. Workers were furloughed and laid off en masse, and those that returned in the summer did so to more dangerous conditions. A UCSF study from March to October 2020 showed that among essential workers, line cooks were at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19, above machine operators and even nurses.
“When things got rocky and COVID was in full effect, as an industry, they were thrust out in the front. We said, ‘You’re essential,’” Richardson said. “They heard, felt and saw that, and they looked at their check ... I don’t know that their check felt very essential.”
As restaurants made do with smaller staff, thousands of people moved on. They went back to school, got a real estate license, started their own businesses. Some took corporate jobs that paid more, gave benefits and allowed them to work remotely.
Some families figured out how to live on one income, or sped up their retirement plans and left the workforce altogether. Childcare, always an issue particularly for women in the workforce, became an even bigger challenge. How can a parent commit to consistent weekday shifts when they’re overseeing virtual school? Even now, school-age kids might have to quarantine at any time.
“As a single parent, I’m worried about being able to take time off,” said Cozine. “I don’t want to work late nights. I have a 6-year-old.”
Recently, two more things changed. An extra $300 per week for unemployment kicked in by the federal government ended in Wisconsin on Sept. 11. Though often cited in partisan debate as a force behind the so-called “worker shortage,” so far, states that got rid of additional unemployment benefits early have not seen a substantial difference in employees returning to work.
The end of the unemployment benefit boost dovetailed with the start of the school year, always a transitional time for high school and college students.
“We lost 21 people three weeks ago for college,” said Tom Marks, general manager at Hop Haus Brewing Company in Fitchburg. “We are super short staffed, and nobody’s even really applying. We can’t get people to walk in the door. It’s been very hard.
“And it’s not even just the staffing we’re having problems with,” Marks added. “It’s getting cans to put our beer in, to get out to the stores. Food prices have gone skyrocketing.”
When Marks goes to order from purveyors like Sysco and US Foods, he often finds they’re out of something. Then things on the recommended substitutions list are out too. Other local businesses reported supply chain issues with everything from cardboard boxes and paper plates at a popular pizzeria to tortillas at a Mexican taqueria and to-go cups at a coffee shop.
Ironically, being short staffed at the Starbucks on Allen Boulevard in Middleton has meant fewer hours for shift manager Lydia Miller.
“We put signs up every single day about it,” Miller said. “‘We’re sorry, we’re closing at 2 or 3 instead of 7 p.m.’ We don’t have the people to staff a full close. We have barely enough people to stay open.”
An electrical engineering student at Madison College, Miller has worked at the company for about four years, as a shift manager for two. Starbucks does a good job with benefits, she said — everyone is going to get raises of 5-6% next month, depending on how long they’ve been with the company. Miller said she’ll be making $16.50 an hour; baristas will go up to $14. Employees get health benefits, free subscriptions to Spotify and Headspace (a meditation app) and, every six months, company stock.
They’re hiring now because the students who kept the coffee shop going over the summer left before pumpkin spice season started.
“Hiring more people would help out, but we’d still have to train while we’re understaffed,” Miller said.
Tipped employees at Hop Haus start at $4/hour, Marks said, above Wisconsin’s minimum tipped wage of $2.33/hour. Hop Haus’s rooftop patio still can’t open for full service most days. Marks said he’s been tending bar and waiting tables on top of managing the brewery, a common refrain from owners and managers.
“It’s frustrating for us,” Marks said. “I used to always have a stack of 15, 20, 50 applications. It used to be people wanted to work in the restaurant industry.
“I don’t know if it’s too many restaurants, or what? I don’t think that’s the case. People want to go out to eat for food and drinks and beer.”
Better pay, longer breaks
Restaurant work has built-in limitations. You might have to work late (or if you’re a baker or barista, very early). Many restaurants stay open on holidays. And the culture in the service industry has not, historically, been great for women. For too long, misogynistic and abusive behavior was given a pass.
But while some things are non-negotiable, like the need to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in a University of Wisconsin-Madison dining hall, others, like wages, benefits and education, can change. To get people to return, they’ll have to.
“Food service is a tough industry,” said Peter Testory, director of dining and culinary services in the Division of University Housing at UW-Madison. “It’s long hours, tough work, low pay.
“Individuals have found other work that is equal in pay and doesn’t have some of the other work environment challenges that food service has historically been known for.”
Lines were longer than usual at the start of the school year in UW dining halls. Testory cited a 35% vacancy rate of full-time frontline staff — a different bucket, he said, than student workers, where they are also “operating with a significantly less percentage of students than we need to be fully staffed.”
To help recruit, UW is offering a $2,000-$4,000 signing bonus depending on the position and shift. The minimum starting wage is $15, dining halls are closed on holidays, and in addition to state benefits, UW offers professional development opportunities.
“It’s typically been us evaluating the candidate, but now it’s a whole lot more of the candidate evaluating us as a workplace,” Testory said. “We become salesmen. It becomes our job to sell them on what’s so great about working with us.”
Restaurants around the city are paying more. Brian Hamilton at The Kettle Black pays staff a high starting wage ($15/hour) in addition to tips. Hamilton’s also trying to make a different kind of workplace culture than the one he worked in, and sometimes contributed to, for years. Now, he said, his kitchen is a place for “please and thank you ... no one raising their voice, let alone throwing a pot or pan at someone.”
“I’m happy to pay people more,” Hamilton said, “to make it less of a transient job and more of a career job. I’m trying to change the culture in my tiny little corner. The industry used to be a pressure cooker ... that’s what I’m trying to change.”
At Graze, co-proprietors Dianne Christensen and Tory Miller added a 10% service charge. They also raised the price of the Graze burger for the first time in 10 years, from $21 to $25. Miller said since then, he’s heard people refer to Graze as “a special occasion restaurant,” and he doesn’t disagree.
“Going out is special. It should be,” Miller said. “We went pretty broke in the pandemic, and we have to try to recoup some of that. But it’s also the reality of having food prices catch up to cost of living for restaurants.”
According to the New York Times, some 370,000 business owners applied for more than $75 billion from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. That was nearly three times what the federal government made available ($28.6 billion). Overall, the federal fund fulfilled 105,000 requests and turned the rest away.
Deja Food Group (Graze, L’Etoile and Estrellon) was approved for Restaurant Revitalization Funds but didn’t receive them, Miller said. When the RRF was announced, women and business owners of color were given priority, but a lawsuit brought in part by a conservative legal group in Wisconsin alleged discrimination. So even though some businesses were approved for grants, they didn’t necessarily receive them.
Restaurant operators have been calling on the Small Business Administration to refill the fund. A recent Independent Restaurant Coalition survey of 800 restaurant operators noted that 82% believe they’ll close if the grant program is not refilled.
Not receiving those funds hurt, Miller said, and recovery has been hard on staff. Graze and L’Etoile closed for a full week in August to give everyone a break. Estrellon remains closed and may not reopen. Recently, L’Etoile had to reschedule its anniversary dinner and close for two days because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 — an $18,000 decision.
Breaks are costly, but Miller said, “it’s worth it when you look at people’s mental capacity. It’s worth it if you have people who like where they work.”
When Crema Café on Monona Drive decided to close on Sundays, a reasonably busy day, owner Steve Bucholz knew he was leaving money on the table. As an owner of the café for 14 years, “nothing is above me and nothing is below me; I will clean toilets and deliver food,” Bucholz said.
But he started to wonder why. Was the schedule sustainable? And was the money even worth it?
“People who worked on a busy Saturday don’t want to work on a really busy Sunday,” said Bucholz. “And I was working every day there. I came to a moment at the beginning of August, like, ‘I don’t want to do Sundays anymore.’”
Batch Bakehouse, a small east side bakery, has closed twice this year to give staff time off. Co-owner Susan Detering cited the “huge burnout factor” and the stress of working with people over the past two years.
“We’ve gotten crappy Google reviews, like, ‘This place would be great if it was ever open,’” Detering said. “That’s fine for you to say that, but you have no idea how hard everyone’s worked for so long.”
Batch is a community-building kind of place, Detering said, and COVID changed that in weird, stressful ways. “People are scared and worried and you have these crazy fast interactions, and you can’t hear someone talking through a mask,” Detering said. “And then they get mad at you.”
Batch, which is hiring in all departments, has adapted its systems and is cross-training departments as much as possible without having a baker fall asleep on a retail shift. The bakery will stay closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and keep shorter hours for the foreseeable future, Detering said.
Like at Graze, those closures come at a cost. On the balance sheet, negative days turn into negative weeks. Week-long closures mean negative months. And nobody at Batch has the bandwidth to make another graphic poster or social media post explaining it all to customers.
“The jobs are all very different now,” Detering said. “In some ways it’s good. But in other ways, it’s not at all the job you left and think you’re coming back to.
“It isn’t fun anymore,” she added. “We don’t hang out over the counter and talk and laugh and joke about how big your kid is. People love the food and thank us. But it’s a different thing.”
At Batch’s sister business, Ian’s Pizza, customer interactions have been fraught, mainly on State Street. The second time the Dane County mask mandate came down, some diners were not into it. It got pretty bad.
“People want to belittle the enforcement of it, or our employees trying to do their jobs and keep things safe,” said Nick Martin, a managing partner who co-owns the Ian’s Pizza locations on State Street and in Garver Feed Mill.
This can happen on Saturday game days, when families come in and the dad needs to let Ian’s employees have it about how dumb masks are. But late night “is definitely the worst, with people who don’t want to comply and want to let you know about it, and just do whatever they can to be obstructive,” Martin said.
“They can be pretty mean about it, to the point that we had to hire third-party event staff, just to help us with mask enforcement.”
Martin had to call six security companies before he found one to help. The security companies were having staffing issues, too.
Time to train
When Marc LaPierre launched Madison-based Clock’d, the business model was like Uber for restaurant jobs. Restaurants could sign up to get a last minute bartender or line cook, as needed. Now, Clock’d is more like a staffing agency that specifically works with food service.
Employees, LaPierre said, “are looking for work-life balance. People are looking for work that’s closer to home, Monday to Friday, nine to five. They’re willing to take pay cuts to get that.”
LaPierre’s biggest advice to clients like Marigold Kitchen, The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Glass Nickel Pizza Co. and The Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb is to have training systems in place.
“You need to be able to hire people for positions with no experience,” LaPierre said. “If you’re willing to train someone, you’ll get the most applicants.”
Workers may be former drivers for DoorDash or Grubhub, or be leaving stressful health care or education career tracks. And they expect to hear back very quickly when they apply for something. Many apply for three to five jobs at once and take whichever gives the best offer, fastest.
“If you go 24 hours without responding to a candidate, there’s a 60% drop-off rate,” LaPierre said. At some restaurants, he said, three out of four interviewees didn’t show up at all.
While LaPierre encourages restaurant clients to advertise benefits like insurance and paid time off, one size does not fit all when it comes to job perks. Two-thirds of Ian’s Pizza’s workforce is school-aged, with some 50% actively in school. The company decided to divert benefits back into wages based on feedback from employees who preferred a higher dollar amount per hour over health insurance.
To fill in the gaps, Ian’s is offering referral and hiring bonuses. Working after 10 p.m. pays $2 more per hour. Tipped workers are now guaranteed $15 per hour, and Ian’s is trying to automate tipping to make it specific to times and hours worked. The bleakest point with staffing was several weeks ago, but the tide has slowly begun to turn.
“We have seen a little light at the end of the tunnel,” said Martin. “An on-demand workforce, work the hours you want ... we’re trying to go in that direction. People want that flexibility. When we’re begging people to pick up one more shift, it kills us because all we’re doing is burning people out.”
It may take years for staffing to rebound to anything approaching pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, the shortage can show up in ways both general (is anywhere open for lunch anymore?) and specific (sorry, no scali at the Willy Street Co-op on Mondays).
And there are ripple effects. At Madison Eats Food Tours, Otehlia Cassidy created a new bike tour that starts at Garver Feed Mill and rolls down Willy Street instead of re-launching some of her other popular excursions.
“I’ve been wanting to reopen my Atwood tour,” said Cassidy, whose business is in its 10th year. “They can’t commit to having staffing available, knowing for sure they’re going to have someone to take care of it. ... (Restaurants) see the money as it walks out the door.
“People want to collaborate. They just can’t do it.”
And many staffers may never come back. Cozine, the server, has gotten calls for work and references from Food Fight Restaurant Group, a friend at Rule No. One (Merchant and Lucille) and another friend at Alchemy. Some of her colleagues are so essential to the places they work that in order to take a day off, the whole place has to close for the day.
“In the last year, we were all forced to evaluate what our values are, and is it worth it?” Cozine said. “Historically restaurant jobs are low paying. It is hard work, and the culture can also be toxic. Is it worth it to do that for $15 an hour?
“On the flip side, restaurants operate on a thin margin with a perishable product, and now everyone is expecting $15/hour with no experience,” she said. “The whole model is really damaged.”
When Cozine was at a busy downtown restaurant, “I felt like I was giving everything to my job and at the end of the day, there was absolutely nothing left for me,” she said. “There was this high expectation that I had to output so much, and give so much loyalty to the job.
“Even though I learned a lot and I did, for the most part, love it, I was just exhausted. By the time I left I was so burnt out.”
What can diners do? For one, Cozine said, be a little more respectful and understanding. If there’s a long wait, or you see tables that aren’t being seated, be patient. The service staff are your neighbors, and they’re doing their best.
“So what if the restaurant is closed on a Monday? Don’t write a Yelp review about it,” Cozine said. “I love this industry ... you find people who are so passionate and care so much about providing good service and taking care of people. We’re givers and it goes unnoticed.
“Engineers and doctors are important, but everyone needs to eat.”
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.